Thousands of injured veterans are beginning to benefit from enhancements to the New Veterans Charter which came into effect in October. But veterans advocates say there is still work to be done to make this “living charter” more responsive to the needs of veterans and their families.
The changes reflect those that were passed in the House of Commons and Senate in March, just days before the 2011 federal election was called (Passed At The Last Minute, Editorial, May/June).
The federal government has committed $189 million over the next five years to ensure support for seriously injured Canadian Forces veterans, Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney said at a news conference at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. He said it’s expected up to $2 billion will be spent over the life of the program.
The charter has several components, including medical rehabilitation, access to group health benefits, career transition services and financial support, designed to support ill and injured veterans. The enhancements concentrate on financial support.
The changes close a gap which left some severely injured veterans ineligible for either the charter’s Permanent Impairment Allowance (PIA) or the Exceptional Incapacity Allowance under the Pension Act. Veterans Affairs Canada is contacting about 3,500 veterans who fall under the expanded eligibility criteria and asking them to re-apply for the PIA, a benefit ranging between $500 and $1,600 monthly, payable for life.
Severely injured veterans receiving the PIA and unable to return to work will receive an additional $1,000 per month, payable for life, in addition to other financial benefits.
The disability award, adjusted for inflation to currently provide up to $285,659 in recognition of pain and suffering, may now be disbursed as a lump sum, in equal annual payments (with interest) spread out over a number of years, or a combination of the two, at the choice of the recipient.
Ill or injured veterans in the rehabilitation program are eligible for the Earnings Loss Benefit (ELB), which provides 75 per cent of their pre-release salary; the changes guarantee a minimum pre-tax income of $40,000 annually while in the program, or to age 65 for those too disabled to return to work. VAC expects 2,300 veterans to benefit from this change.
However, this does not apply to part-time reservists, who are “only eligible for a minimum income of $24,300 pre-tax per year,” says Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent. “This is unfair, given that part-time service can result in permanent disability directly related to that service.”
Reservists’ rehabilitation and income support needs are no different from those in the regular forces, he said. For example, if a regular force member and part-time reservist suffer the same injury on a training exercise, rendering them unable to work for the remainder of their lives, the part-time reservist will receive 40 per cent less ELB than the regular force member.
VAC explained that the ELB was modelled on the Service Income Security Insurance Plan (SISIP) income-replacement provisions, and because SISIP provisions differentiate benefits available to part-time reservists, so does the ELB. SISIP deems a salary of $2,700 per month for part-time reservists.
“Addressing the basic needs of part-time reservists was put aside for the sake of aligning a VAC program to a National Defence Program,” Parent says in his Oct. 7 blog. “I dare say that VAC missed an opportunity to promote fair treatment of veterans; it should have called for SISIP to align with the ELB, not the other way around!
“Those who sustain similar illnesses or injuries while serving their country should have access to the same benefits, regardless of the nature of their service,” added Parent. “It is simply a matter of fairness.”
Legion Dominion President Pat Varga has said these enhancements are just a first step in much-needed improvements to the charter. Modern veterans’ access to long-term care and eligibility for the Veterans Independence Program continue to be concerns. As well, many of the suggestions and recommendations by the New Veterans Charter Advisory Group in 2009 have yet to be addressed.